LIFESTYLELifeLife Through The Lens: Photography And Firefighting 

Life Through The Lens: Photography And Firefighting 

By: Kyle Jaffa – Lieutenant – Santa Fe County Fire Department

Firefighters are by nature drawn to light. Whether it is the glow of a structure fire as we race down the highway, or the sterilizing backdrop of an emergency room, light is an inherent part of what we do. 

It’s no wonder, then, that many firefighters turn that attraction for light into a passion for photography. In fact, the word photograph at its most basic meaning translates into ‘to draw the light’. The shaping of these images tells a story of the world around us. 

One such story is the history of the fire service for which you work. Adorning the walls of every fire station in the world you will find landscapes of the service area or crew photos of those who have served before you. They are a window into the soul of the department, and keeping the tradition of these ‘firehouse photos’ alive is one that should be upheld in the department’s pride and ownership. 

One such person keeping up with this tradition is firehouse Captain and Photographer Stephen Baer from Seattle Fire Department. Stephen has combined his love for preserving the history of his department and passion for photography into a side business where he captures panoramic crew photos, a tradition at Seattle Fire since the early 1800s. I was able to speak to Stephen about his perspective on how photography fits into the hectic world of firefighting. 

“I love how long a great photo can last, especially one displayed proudly in a fire station,” says Stephen. “I often think about how in the blink of an eye, I’ll have moved on, but maybe a photo of my coworkers and I could remain 60 years from now.  I love looking at the folks, horses, dogs, and rigs that have all come before us.  There’s so much rich history in the Fire Service.”

“As I travel around the county taking photos, I’ve come across some fire stations with amazing displays of history.  You really need to make a conscious effort to pick those bits of history off the floor in the back room, find a spot and put them up for all to see.”

Much like family photographs off duty, the fire station walls can become a collage of images that inject life and personality into our home away from home. The images can serve as a lamppost for new generations as they seek to get their bearings in the new world they have entered. It simply takes one person who is willing to learn how to capture those images to start that tradition. 

Stephen had this to offer for anyone who might be considering picking up photography in their spare time.

“Get out there and take fun photos, not all of them will be kept but some will.  Then go the extra five yards and get them framed and hung up in the Station or Hall.  You won’t regret it.  As an extra bonus, write your names someplace on the back of the frame.  Years from now some new boot will find your name and wonder about what became of you. Almost everything I know about photography I learned from YouTube videos and the such.  A fancy camera won’t really set you apart anymore, but knowing what you are doing with some editing afterwards totally will.  Get editing software and watch a ton of videos.  Then go out and take a ton of photos.  For me, that’s what’s made the difference.” 

So what advice is there for persons looking to start this great hobby in their own right? Here are a few short tips. 

The camera you have is better than the camera you don’t

Too often have I heard of people who want to get into photography but stall out when they look at the overwhelming amount of gear options that are on offer. It’s easy to feel like you need the highest end equipment (which can run thousands of dollars) but that simply isn’t true. Wielding the camera that you already own in a skillful way will always produce a better image than something new and high end, but with which you have no experience. Use your cell phone or look into one of the many user friendly entry level DSLR or Mirrorless camera options available to you. Just pick something that you want to learn and go for it. 

Shoot, shoot, then shoot some more

Photography is like any other art; it takes practice to become proficient at it. Just like hitting the gym, you’ll never grow if you aren’t putting in the repetitions. Go out and take pictures of things you find interesting, or that tell a story you wish to tell. Sit down with those images and ask yourself what you like or don’t like about them. What’s really working? What’s muddying the message? Be critical to a point, but don’t forget to be happy with the things you’re doing right as well.

Seek out other artists who inspire you

Social media is an excellent resource for photographers of all skill levels and interests. Seek out artists who are producing work that catches your eye. Ask yourself why you are drawn to that image. What compositional choices has the photographer made? Observe how light falls across the image and evokes the emotions you feel when viewing it. Take this information and apply it to your own images. 

Enjoy the moment

Finally, remember why you wanted to try photography in the first place. The world around us is full of intrigue and beauty and capturing a small piece of that can be an incredibly rewarding experience. It is a fun, exciting, and peaceful way to spend your free time. If you begin to feel overwhelmed or frustrated at the process, then pause and take a break. Put the camera back in its bag and simply sit back and take in the scene. 

That’s all there is to it. If you follow these simple steps, and put in the time to hone your craft, you will soon be creating images that you are proud of. Print these out and hang them at home or in the station. Take pride in what you create and in yourself for being willing to create it. For Stephen, photography has been the much needed hobby to refill his creative tank. Perhaps it can be for you as well. 

To follow more from Stephen Baer check him out on his website at